17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount could be called "Jesus and The Law". Before He could go further in His sermon, Jesus needed to clarify where He stood with regard to the Law of Moses. Many eyes were watching Him - powerful eyes - the scribes and teachers of the law, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the High Priests - they were all suspicious of Jesus and His teachings.
The religious authorities thought that Jesus' attitude toward the Law might reveal His intentions. Did He want to set aside the law? Did He want to add to the law? Where did He stand?
Jesus clarified these questions for them immediately. His purpose was not to abolish the Law and the Prophets or add to to them. He came to fulfill them. Indeed, as long as heaven and earth exist, God's word - the Law - would continue to exist and never pass away.
Jesus then reinforced His point by pronouncing the fate of those seeking to change or disobey the law. He said that those who break the least points of the law or teach others to do so would be counted the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is ironic because this is exactly what the religious leadership of the time did. While they would make great public shows of their own righteousness, they ignored what they considered to be the least of the commandments and they taught others to do the same.
Jesus then closes this section with a call to extreme righteousness. He raises the bar for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven by demanding a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees. This must have seemed amazing to the crowds as well as impossible, but eventually He would show them the way to it.
So what did Jesus mean when He said He came to fulfill the Law?
-He meant that He would not only keep the law perfectly Himself, but that He would bring out the real meaning of it - what God had intended - that the religious authorities were conveniently ignoring. The Law was and is not just about what you do or do not do. It is about what is in your heart. Intention and faith. The Law was supposed to teach the people about the character of their God and His intentions for them in regard to faith and attitude and how that should translate to behavior. The religious leadership in Judea at that time were completely missing the point and they were not sharing the real intent of the Law with the people that needed it most.
So how can we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? How is that possible given the fact that human nature is at best bent toward sin and at worst, totally broken?
-There is only one way to do this. We must have faith in Christ. Our faith will be counted by God as righteousness and then we can move forward in the sanctification process to higher levels of obedience. This obedience does not save. It is our faith that saves us by His grace. See the entire book of Romans and Ephesians 2:8,9.
Jesus would go on from here in less than 3 years time to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the rebellion of mankind against God. He would die and then walk away from the grave in victory over sin and death, having defeated them both. He would then offer the same kind of victory for all of us if we only believe. Through these acts, Jesus truly fulfilled the Law and set aside its condemnation and penalty for those of us that believe in His power. It can be ours if we just quit struggling and believe.